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Healthy Data is Happy Data
Knox students help county health department organize information
March 24, 2005

Wil Hayes of the Knox County Health Department is feeling a lot better about his computerized records, after a computer science class from Knox College reorganized a series of disconnected data files into a single, integrated environmental database.

The students in professor John Dooley's class in software engineering met recently with Hayes and several staff members at the health department, to review the work that the class had done over the past ten weeks.

"The class has been great," Hayes said. The integrated database "will make us much more efficient." At the same time, the students have gained valuable experiential lessons. "The students can see someone actually using what they've created," Hayes said.

100 files here, 100 there... pretty soon you're talking real numbers
Hayes, who directs the Health Department's Environmental Health Services division, keeps track of 800 private wells and water systems, and 2,000 private septic systems. He and his staff also inspect restaurants and tanning facilities, and monitor sites for mosquito abatement. The department has more than 400 service requests in file, and Hayes said they will open more than 400 new records every year.

"Right now, when someone calls us, we have to look in four or five different files" to collect all the information about a particular location, Hayes said.

The students merged seven files into a single application, allowing health department staff to quickly search for all service requests, permits, inspections, or complaints relating to any given location in the county. The students also wrote new programs for data entry and creating reports.

"We started out with separate databases, but with the advent of GIS (geographical information systems) we wanted the ability to cross-reference information based on location, parcel number, or tax identification number," Hays said.

"We also wrote a tool that will convert all of the existing databases into the new one," said Alex Baker, a senior computer science major, in a briefing on March 8 for Hayes and his staff -- Sarah Willett, Gillian Simmons and Dedra Mannon.

Project Team
Mark Addonizio
Kreighan Riley
Matt Koch
Alex Baker
Kurt Sheffer
Brian Porter
Tyler Nichols
John Dooley, associate professor

On the Job Learning
Even though the students started off knowing little about the county's multi-faceted environmental health division, "they have provided us with a lot of information and insight about our operation," Hayes said.

"The advantage of an off-campus project is that the client has a real problem that they want to solve," Dooley said. "It makes the assignment more real for the students, because they're writing software for an average user, not another software developer."

Hayes and Dooley are now looking for one or more Knox students to continue working on the project through the spring and summer. Even after seven students worked for ten weeks, the database still isn't finished, Dooley said.

"As the students worked, the project got bigger and bigger, which is typical for projects like this," Dooley said. "I don't think the students realized how hard this would be."

Before coming to Knox in 2001, Dooley worked for 18 years in software engineering, including ten years at Motorola, managing both large-scale and small-scale programming projects.

In addition to lining up students to finish off the health department database, Dooley wants to find other programming projects in the community that he can assign to future classes. Dooley can be contacted at 309 341 7748 or via e-mail at

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 46 states and 41 nations. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Related Links

Knox College Computer Science Program

John Dooley Profile

External Site
  Knox County Health Department


Peter Bailley
309 341 7337

Kurt Sheffer, Brian Porter and John Dooley of Knox College meet with Wil Hayes [standing at right] and other staff members of the Knox County Health Department.
Knox College computer students at Knox County health department
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Prof. John Dooley outlines the database project
Prof. John Dooley at Knox County health department